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How The Net Destroyed Democracy: Lawrence Lessig (Transcript)

Full text of political activist Lawrence Lessig’s talk: How The Net Destroyed Democracy at TEDxBerlinSalon conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Lawrence Lessig – Attorney, and political activist

So, I’ve spent most of my career as an apologist for the Internet, and the last 10 years of my career as a critic of governments, in particular, of the United States government.

And in the background of that apology and the background of that criticism, there has been a glorious group called ‘The people’ — never criticized by me, never questioned — never questioned that at the core of democracy, there was a well-functioning idea called ‘we – the People, if only we could speak.’

So today, I don’t want to apologize for the net anymore; I want to criticize it. And I don’t want to talk about the corruption of government, I want to ignore it. And I don’t want to praise ‘We- the people,’ I want to show you just how pathetic we have become, or at least how pathetic we are understood, because unless we find a way to recover a reason for democracy, there is no fight for democracy to be had.

So, I want to start with two things; we could call them thing one and thing two. Thing one, I want you to think about common knowledge; knowledge held by all of us. And thing two, I want you to think about common will.

So, common knowledge, things known generally within a people; everyone knows there was a wall in Berlin; everyone knows this is our President; everyone knows that most Americans don’t like that President. These are common knowledge, among Americans at least.

And then there’s common will; what we want or we believe. So, Gallup tells us that Americans believe the freedom in their life has contracted over the last decade; tells us that the confidence in the economy has grown; and just to remind you, it tells us that most Americans don’t like Donald Trump as our President. These are the elements of common will.

So, thing one, thing two. Thing one; things we know. Thing two; things we want. It’s good to get that order right. If you want things before you know, you get into trouble. So, we know before we want. Thing one versus thing two.

Now, what I want you to do is to think about thing one and thing two, and three different periods over the last 200 years.

So first the period of the 19th century, as I cleverly took iconic images from Berlin; but I’m not talking about Berlin, I want to talk about America, but iconic images from the 19th century in Berlin, 20th century in Berlin and the 21st century in Berlin. These images, to trigger recognition of different periods.

So, let’s start with the 19th century, and question thing one asks, ‘How did we know in the 19th century?’ Well, in the 19th century, people knew, or those who knew, knew through technologies like this… printed journals, newspapers, many many sources which would filter out to produce knowledge in a public, fragmented and diverse.

There’s no broadcasting in the 19th century; no real syndication, at least in the United States, in the 19th century, to the extent there is common knowledge — ‘common knowledge’ it is little and thin. There are certain facts everyone knows that there was a war called the Civil War, who the president is. But facts like, ‘whether the tariff should go up and down?’ those are not things that ordinary people knew.

But if you would ask the question, ‘What did ordinary people know? Or what did they want?’ the proper answer in the 19th century was, ‘Who the frac knows’ because there was no technology to know what people wanted; there was no polling; there were no surveys. People like James Bryce had mystical theories about how politicians came to know what the people wanted.

But in fact, it was more like a Catholic priest, or this is a Methodist priest but anyway, a priest telling us what God wants, never really believing we know what God actually wants, just the priests’ interpretation. That’s all we have.

And the consequence was that the will of the people was actually pretty irrelevant to most of what government does. If somebody had stood up and very earnestly said, ‘what does the public want?’ to a government official, the reaction would have been sort of minion like ‘ha-ha! Yes sure’ as if that could possibly matter.

Policymaking, in the 19th century, was by policy making elites. So, we have a 19th century, knowledge, fragmented, what the people cared about basically unknown.

Then the 20th century. How do we know in the 20th century? Well, the 20th century has two extraordinary technologies we need to reckon and to think about.

First, a technology of broadcasting. For the first time, we have the capacity to speak to everybody at the same time. And broadcasting dramatically affects news, as leaders go to the radio to speak to the people for the first time. And it affects culture, generally, far beyond issues of policy. And this troubled many people in the history of culture.

1906, this man John Philip Sousa went to the United States Capitol to testify against the evil technology called ‘the talking machines.’ Sousa was not a fan of the talking machines. As he testified, these talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country.

When I was a boy, in front of every house, in the summer evenings, you would find young people together, singing the songs of the day, of the old songs. Today, you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left, Sousa threatens. The vocal cords will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tale of man when he came from the apes.

What Sousa feared here was that a certain technology; technology of broadcasting or the technology of music in record players would make a certain kind of culture, kind of couch potato culture, a passive receptive culture that would not engage in creation on its own but consume creation produced elsewhere; and that was the fear in politics too.

But an extraordinary technology that the birth of the 20th century nobody ever thought about, radically changed; that affected television. And as an extraordinary scholar from Princeton, Marcus Pryor has shown us through an incredible empirical analysis of political attitudes, as it relates to the technology of broadcasting, technology of television changed everything; not just because of the concentration, one or two channels that broadcast everything.

And indeed, there was an extraordinary concentration. Sir Agnew writes, “At least 40 million Americans every night watched the network news in 1969.” According to Harris Polls, in other studies, “For millions of Americans, the networks are the sole source of national and world news.” Even in 1977, news in this sense, ninety percent of people got their news from three television networks.

So, there’s an extraordinary concentration in the information people are exposed to. But more than the concentration, Pryor demonstrates, it’s also a certain kind of addiction. People can’t turn the television off. And not just in the 80s of the 90s, but in the 1950s, the television is turned on and just left on, in the United States, for those times of the day when the television is running always in the background and there’s a regular pattern to the day. And at part of the day, everybody is watching the news.

And what that does by putting the news through a channel that was inherently understandable to everybody was that we had a media that conveyed the news, so that ordinary as well as elite citizens understood it. For the first time, this wasn’t speaking just to an elite, in journals or newspapers that only the highbrow would consume, everybody consumed it.

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